How CalArts Shifted to Remote Recording amid COVID Concerns

Linda Hansen | 19/11/2020 How CalArts Shifted to Remote Recording amid COVID Concerns

When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted classes at the California Institute of the Arts, EMILY EVANS and her colleagues in the school’s music department had to radically rethink their approach to remote recording and collaboration.

Though the CalArts music program is widely recognized as one of the best in the United States, students depended on in-person, hands-on instruction for both the performing arts and production courses. So the school had to quickly retool its classes mid-semester when COVID-19 hit.

Evans, who is co-director of the Musical Arts/Experimental Pop (BFA) specialization, was teaching a production class that was very reliant on access to CalArts’ four recording and mixing studios. “Everything is there for students to start creating and sculpting sounds,” she explained. But when the campus studios were closed, students had no choice but to work from home. There was, she said, “a real disparity in what they had available at home to work with.”  

She didn’t want to assign projects that would “exacerbate the differences, so the class focus shifted to remote collaboration with Soundtrap, a cloud-based digital audio workstation (DAW). 

“We did a session with 12 people in different locations and were able to build up a 24-track recording and export it. Everyone was able to create their own mixes in ProTools. It was really fun and cool, too, because many of the students were in bands that had ground to a halt. Some of them started using the online DAW for their practices and collaboration sessions.” 

At the time, no one knew how valuable this mid-semester curriculum remix would be in the semester ahead.

Remote Studio Kits

Late in the summer, CalArts made the decision that the rise in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County made in-person classes unrealistic. This meant that faculty had to reinvent the curriculum for in-person, hybrid and remote classes in just a few months. It was a challenging summer, as Evans pointed out, “trying to imagine what a fall semester based entirely on remote music making would look like.”

The student focus was changing, too. The closed studios on campus meant that students from CalArts’ performing arts programs were gravitating to the production and studio classes that Evans and her colleagues taught. Not able to play in the same room with their ensemble mates because of the pandemic, they were now coping with the reality of a remote semester by trying to learn a new skill set with “everything mediated by technology.”  

To help its students meet these technical challenges on a level playing field, CalArts put together home studio kits available for students to sign-out for the semester that included an audio interface, an XLR cable, and a Shure Beta 57A microphone with a stand.

Designing the Fall

Another challenge that Evans and her colleague Eyvind Kang faced was to come up with a fall project that was flexible with or without the pandemic. 

“We wanted to create a class that was more than a band-aid response, that could open up new opportunities for collaboration and composition,” Evans said. 

That’s when they decided to take it global. Throughout the current semester, 24 CalArts students have formed 8-10 ensembles with established guest artists, using microphones donated by Shure to facilitate remote recording sessions. When the semester ends in December, the students will upload their collaborative compositions for review.

Stations, Sponsors and Record Labels

In order to realize their remote recording project, Evans and Kang tapped the music industry for another form of collaboration.

First, they recruited LA-based internet radio station Dublab and record labels Sublime Frequencies in Cairo, Mais Um Discos in London and Optimo Music in Scotland to identify local and international artists willing to partner up with the CalArts students. 

Then they reached out to Soundtrap, based in Sweden, has offered 6-month licenses to its browser-based DAW to all participating musicians. “In the past,” she said, “you’d have to record in a conventional DAW, export the file, upload it to Dropbox and pass the file back and forth that way.” Soundtrap eliminates that. “Two musicians can’t play at the same time, accompanying each other, but they can take turns overdubbing. With a chat window and a video chat within the same DAW, students create tracks, hear what others are doing and communicate with them at the same time.”                                   

Microphones? Well, that was easy. Evans’ experience with the SM58 went back to her teen years when she was teaching herself to play and record. “I did all my recording on an old Tascam reel-to-reel desk and an SM58.” Its flexibility as either a vocal or instrument mic was a bonus, plus, she said, “it’s easy to use, sounds great and it’s hard to break - just the ideal mic to be working with.” Shure responded with a donation of 20 SM58s and XLR cables.

The New Normal

Evans and Kang don’t see this new approach to collaboration as a one-off either. Though there’s no shortage of exceptional musicians among the students and faculty at the music school, they now have the opportunity to “reach out to musicians in places like Uganda and Brazil. They’ll be exposed to new musical forms in a global perspective that’s assisted by technology.”

How to evaluate the class? “If you go in with the idea that it’s an experiment, that it’s about people working through relationships, whether creative or personal, with people of another culture, then we learn that it’s about more than making music together,” said Evans. 

That’s the way to evaluate it.  “It’s not about whether there’s a polished album at the end.”

Linda Hansen

Linda Hansen

Linda abandoned a Michigan Avenue advertising career to start her own tiny communications firm over a decade ago. She has written and edited hundreds of articles for Shure over the years on subjects ranging from bluegrass at the Mother Church to Leslie Tone Cabinet miking techniques. Her only other musical claim to fame is having attended the last live concert of the Sex Pistols at Winterland.